As we approach Bethlehem
By Fr. Charles Baxter
During these busy and challenging weeks that precede the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, it’s difficult for the faithful Orthodox to have a connection to the real things that we celebrate. Not only do our schedules fill up with commitments for work, school and family there are the extra errands to prepare for and receive guests. The time we may spend in prayer, or even in church, gets pushed aside for more pressing and urgent matters. This is also the opportunity that the adversary uses to keep our minds in a state of anxiety and aggravation. While we journey through the fast and come spiritually closer to Bethlehem our souls, through neglect and temptation, can lose their sense of connection to God and salvation. It is at this time we must redouble our efforts and renew a commitment to Christ. The Nativity Icon is an ideal place to seek reconnection.
The Nativity Icon is for the Orthodox an object to instruct and reassure us, as well as a source of strength. There’s a lot going on in this icon. It normally contains a series of scenes or vignettes all relating to the Scriptural references of the birth of Jesus. This is the first signal for us to remember as we look upon this icon with a sense of prayer. Pick up your Bible! Start looking up and reading all the scriptural references that you can find there. The new Orthodox Study Bible is an ideal reference tool here. Also, look up the many Old Testament prophecies and Psalms referred to in the Bible.
Holding Scripture in your hand and referring to it, rather than to the many temptations and distractions of this world, is a powerful and meaningful step. It cannot be stressed often enough that this action is one of the single most effective ways to withstand and to sustain in the stormy “tempest of temptations” hurled against us at this time of year. So PICK UP YOUR BIBLE AND READ IT this day!
Looking at the Icon, consider the figure of St. Joseph near the bottom of the icon. Often you will see him depicted with his head bowed over, as if in consternation or frustration. Consider what this poor man has been going through! He’s having very unusual dreams, being instructed by angels to go here and to do this and he doesn’t really understand why. His wife Mary is pregnant, and he is not the father. This is the young woman who lived in the temple, living a life of prayer and purity. Now she’s pregnant! There’s the trip to Bethlehem for the census, and then the joy of paying taxes. And that’s just the beginning. So salvation comes to the form of what we call a “dysfunctional family.” And yet Joseph perseveres. He stays connected and centered, even though he is in tremendous difficulty.
And who is, in many icons, the old man (notice that there is no halo) speaking to him? What things does he say to Joseph? This is the voice of doubt, suspicion, temptation, aggravation. It’s the voice of self-righteousness and cynicism. It’s the voice that raises hackles and seeks to defeat patience and understanding. It’s the voice that urges us to lash out in anger or to shrink away from doing what’s right and stay in the easy temptation of bad habits.
Temptation and the inclination to sin is with us. And what a way to think of it. When we say one is “inclined” to sin that means we’re not on level or secure ground. It may be a familiar thing but it is the slant downward and away from the light (of hope, of Bethlehem, indeed of salvation) that we must be vigilant to climb up and away from.
The shepherds, frightened by hearing the songs of Angels are curious as to what’s going on. The wise men, travelling a great distance, stay focused on the goal of finding the child told of in prophesy. They do not fall into the avarice and greed of Herod’s lust for power. While the King of Judea is credited now with building many great cities and buildings, it is his lust for power and fear of a challenger to his place of authority that drives him to murder. The ruins of his castles are there for us to visit. Let us remember, however, that the ruin caused by a hardened heart will not just be the historic footnote. Herod’s madness led to the death of many innocents. This man’s potential and power, and how he used it, is an object less for all who may have responsibility (whether small or large) for others.
This is but the small sample of the many things we can learn from and draw strength as individuals and community from this miraculous icon. There is much more to learn from and about each portion of this and other Feast Day Icons. Praying with it and before it drives away the tempters and puts our soul’s and body’s feet upon firm and level ground. May we, through the grace of the newly-born in the flesh Son of God, find strength and comfort in these days so that we may find life with Christ in the next life. Amen.